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Off Key: Cash is Money

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, March 30, 2006

Horowitz/issues/arts/696431
Horowitz
 

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I can distinctly remember the moment I realized why Johnny Cash's music has achieved the rare quality of timelessness in American pop culture. It was winter break my freshman year, and I was in my best friend's '89 Cadillac, racing down a tree-lined highway in Florida.

We were going to meet up with some old friends and see one of our favorite bands, when I fell asleep in the back seat. I woke up to the sound of "The Man in Black," which I'd never heard before.

I'd heard a few of Cash's songs before, but until that day it had never come across what a badass he was. That was the year Cash died and the year his cover of "Hurt" exploded. For awhile, he was everywhere.

Over winter break, I finally saw "Walk the Line" (I know, I'm really slow on the uptake for movies). Everyone I know loved it, whether they were Cash fans before or were converted by the film.

Every aspect of the movie deserved the critical acclaim it received. The acting was superb, the concert scenes were well-performed, and the script was well-written. However, having read Cash (by Johnny Cash) two years before "Walk the Line" hit theatres, there was one thing about the movie that disturbed me.

Anyone who's familiar with Cash's work knows that it's basically impossible to discount the influence his religion played in his songs. Sometimes it's as direct as tracks like "All God's Children Ain't Free" or his entire album of gospel songs. More frequently, it's more subtle, like in "The Man Comes Around" from his last studio-produced album, which is filled with imagery from the biblical Book of Revelations.

In Cash, the Man in Black references his early days working the fields, singing hymns with his mother. He talks about the influence of his brother, who died young, who could recite any story from the gospel by memory.

These are both handled pretty well in the movie. What the filmmakers neglected to include was Cash's account of his own re-conversion to Christianity.

In the book, Cash talks about one of his countless nights spent drugged out of his mind. He decided to take his own life in a pretty untraditional method, befitting one of the "original rebels" (as Willie Nelson called him once) -- he decided he would crawl as far as possible into a cave, leaving himself no way out, and lay there until he died.

It was in that cave that Cash said he felt God's presence, and more or less heard God speaking to him, telling Cash what he said was his own destiny. It didn't include dying in a cave.

Needless to say, when Cash emerged from the cave alive, he had a new source of inspiration to kick the drug habit.

This is, of course, a much different story than "Walk the Line's" coerced rehabilitation at the hand of June Carter, who would become his second wife.

According to Cash, Carter did play a big role in Cash's recovery. But why did the filmmakers cut what was so obviously a life-changing event out of the film?

By leaving out Cash's own version of why he became an outspoken Christian, the movie ignores one of the most central aspects of Cash's life and one of the most influential elements of life that played a role in his music.

Did the filmmakers think that the movie-going public would be made uncomfortable by the direct relationship Cash experienced with God? Were they afraid it would have made Cash look less like a bad-ass country music rebel and more like a slightly insane Bible-thumper, ultimately cutting into the film's bottom line?

Is the film's superficial religiosity indicative of a general disrespect for religious songwriters?

The producers' reasoning is only known to them. However, by merely paying lip service to a major part of Cash's life, they've robbed the film's viewers of a chance to gain even more respect and understanding for Cash's legacy.

Reach the reporter at benjamin.horowitz@asu.edu.



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